Edward Snowden: Hero or Traitor?

During almost every media interview on the Edward Snowden leak story, the person being interviewed (including me) is almost always asked whether Snowden should be considered a whistleblowing hero or a dishonorable traitor to the nation. The question probably arises from American society’s focus on the individual, leading to a celebrity-loving culture, and the black and white conception of right and wrong embedded in the popular culture by movies and TV shows. The question is also often designed to smoke out the interviewee’s political views, thus establishing a short cut for viewers to determine quickly whether to agree or disagree with him or her without being bothered with the details of the issues.

And the details are secret, complex, and legalistic. But the issues are of such vital importance to preserving a republic that true patriots need to wade through them before reaching judgment. Even if the worst, as alleged by U.S. government officials, is true – that Snowden may have already divulged some information about American spying on foreign countries that would compromise intelligence sources and methods, which could get spies for the United States killed or damage U.S. future intelligence collection – this exceptionally bad ramification may be dwarfed by Snowden’s positive contribution. What?!

The traditional foreign policy of the United States during the late 18th and 19th centuries was, in most cases, one of restraint overseas. This policy arose because the nation’s anti-militaristic founders had realized that historically, external wars led to increased government oppression at home and that the United States had the luxury of being able to avoid most wars because of its inherently secure position half a world away from the sources of most conflict. This restraint began to erode during the first half of the 20th century, with U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II, but still existed. Significant opposition arose among segments of the American populace to involving the United States in these three wars, and after each of the conflicts, the country went back to a peacetime footing. During the Cold War, beginning with the Korean War (1950-1953) and after, the United States never returned to its more traditional restrained foreign policy and instead became a militaristic, globe girdling, informal empire – spreading its one-sided alliances, military bases, armed interventions, and foreign aid to all regions of the world. The Cold War, because of its length, really eroded the American republic and its civil liberties. In other words, instead of a U.S. foreign policy that secured the republic and its institutions, as the nation’s founders envisioned, the republic was to be sacrificed in the service of the new American empire.

Even though terrorism is far less of a threat than the Soviet bogeyman used as a cover for American empire during the Cold War, it has replaced the USSR as the main justification for the empire for which the republic must be surrendered. And much of the erosion of the republic through unconstitutional behavior by government bureaucrats during the Cold War and the war on terror has been perpetrated in secret. Even if Snowden has divulged too much about U.S. intelligence activities – and that would be a serious offense – this is more than offset by his vital revelation of the government’s unconstitutional search of likely every American’s phone records in direct contravention of the 4th Amendment’s prohibition against general searches and searches without probable cause that a crime has been committed. The Fourth Amendment makes no exception or has no lesser standard, respectively, for "national security" cases. Fourth Amendment protections are one of the bedrocks of the republic.

Regardless of his intentions – I doubt Snowden is a Chinese spy because China would have left him in place, rather expose him to publicize U.S. spying on its own people, which China probably cares little about – Snowden may have been too clumsy with his revelations. Yet the net effect of his revelations may be positive, even though he shouldn’t get "hero" status.

It is time to stop letting U.S. foreign policy undermine the republic, such as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appears to have done in lying to Congress about these massive programs to spy on Americans. Why is no one calling him a traitor to the republic for undermining its constitutional checks and balances? Even the renowned traitor Benedict Arnold had an unrecognized important role in winning the American Revolution by making a huge contribution to winning one of the two most important battles of the war – Saratoga. What is Clapper’s contribution to America? I would want to analyze it more closely before I call him a traitor to the Constitution. Likewise, we should avoid simplistic labels for Snowden. The issue is much too complex for that. However, we can appreciate Snowden’s disclosure of colossal unconstitutional government misbehavior.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.